Airborne lifeboat

Airborne lifeboats were powered lifeboats that were made to be dropped by fixed-wing aircraft into water to aid in air-sea rescue operations. An airborne lifeboat was to be carried by a heavy bomber specially modified to handle the external load of the lifeboat. The airborne lifeboat was intended to be dropped by parachute to land within reach of the survivors of an accident on the ocean, specifically airmen survivors of an emergency water landing. Airborne lifeboats were used during World War II by the United Kingdom and on Dumbo rescue missions by the United States from 1943 until the mid-1950s.[1]

Airborne Lifeboat - Warwick B1 BV351
A British, Uffa Fox-type airborne lifeboat, shown rigged for sailing, in front of a Vickers Warwick


Air-sea rescue by flying boat or floatplane was a method used by various nations before World War II to pick up aviators or sailors who were struggling in the water.[2] Training and weather accidents could require an aircrew to be pulled from the water, and these two types of seaplane were occasionally used for that purpose. The limitation was that if the water's surface were too rough, the aircraft would not be able to land. Though closer to shore (e.g. in the English Channel) the RAF Air Sea Rescue Service operated High Speed Launches but until 1943, the most that could be done was to drop emergency supplies to the survivors, including an inflatable rubber dinghy carried as-standard in RAF aircraft.

The airborne lifeboat was developed to provide downed airmen with a more navigable and seaworthy vessel that could be sailed greater distances than the rubber dinghy. One of the reasons necessitating this was that when ditching or abandoning an aircraft near enemy-held territory, often the tides and winds would propel the rubber dinghy toward shore, despite the efforts of the occupants to paddle away, resulting in their eventual capture.

British lifeboats

Uffa Fox

Vickers Warwick
A Vickers Warwick bomber carrying the Uffa Fox-designed airborne lifeboat underneath

The first air-dropped lifeboat was British, a 32-foot (10 m) wooden canoe-shaped boat designed in 1943 by Uffa Fox to be dropped by Royal Air Force (RAF) Avro Lancaster heavy bombers for the rescue of aircrew downed in the Channel.[3] The lifeboat was dropped from a height of 700 feet (210 m), and its descent to the water was slowed by six parachutes. It was balanced so that it would right itself if it overturned—all subsequent airborne lifeboats were given this feature. When it hit the water the parachutes were jettisoned and rockets launched 300 ft (90 m) lifelines. Coamings were inflated on the descent to give it self-righting.[4]

Fox's airborne lifeboat weighed 1,700 pounds (770 kg) and included two 4-horsepower (3 kW) motors—sufficient to make about 6 knots—augmented by a mast and sails[5] along with an instruction book to teach aircrew the rudiments of sailing. The lifeboats were first carried by Lockheed Hudson aircraft in February 1943.[5] Later, Vickers Warwick bombers carried the Mark II lifeboat. The Fox boats successfully saved downed aircrew as well as glider infantrymen dropped in the water during Operation Market-Garden.

The lifeboats carried emergency equipment, a radio, waterproof suits, rations and medical supplies.[6]


Avro Shackleton with Saunders-Roe airborne lifeboat
Saunders-Roe Mark 3 airborne lifeboat fitted underneath an Avro Shackleton

In early 1953, Saunders-Roe at Anglesey completed the Mark 3 airborne lifeboat to be fitted underneath the Avro Shackleton maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The Mark 3 was made entirely of aluminium unlike the Fox Mark 1 which was made of wood. Dropped from a height of 700 feet (210 m), the Mark 3 descended under four 42-foot (13 m) parachutes at a rate of 20 feet (6 m) per second into the rescue zone. As the lifeboat dropped, pressurized bottles of carbon dioxide inflated the self-righting chambers at the bow and stern. Upon touching the water, the parachutes were released to blow away, and a drogue opened to slow the boat's drift and aid in the survivors reaching the lifeboat. At the same time, two rockets fired, one to each side, sending out floating lines to provide easier access to the lifeboat for ditched airmen. Doors that opened from the outside provided access to the interior, and the flat deck was made to be self-draining. The craft was powered by a Vincent Motorcycles HRD T5 15-horsepower (11 kW) engine with enough fuel to give a range of 1,250 miles (2,010 km). Sails and a fishing kit were provided, as well as an awning and screen to protect against sun and sea spray. The Mark 3 measured 31 feet (9 m) from bow to stern and 7 feet (2 m) across the beam and held enough to supply 10 people with food and water for 14 days. It carried protective suits, inflatable pillows, sleeping bags, and a first-aid kit.[7]

American lifeboats


Boeing SB-17G of the 5th Rescue Squadron, Flight D
A Boeing SB-17G, an air-sea rescue aircraft modified to carry the A-1 lifeboat

In the United States, Andrew Higgins evaluated the Fox boat and felt it was too weak to survive mishap in emergency operations. In November 1943, Higgins assigned engineers from his company to make a sturdier version with two engines.[3] Higgins Industries, known for making landing craft (LCVPs) and PT boats, produced the A-1 lifeboat, a 1½-ton (1400 kg), 27-foot (8 m) airborne lifeboat with waterproof internal compartments so that it would not sink if swamped or overturned. Intended to be dropped by modified Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, it was ready for production in early 1944.[8]

EDO Corporation

Boeing SB-29
An SB-29 "Super Dumbo", a variant of the B-29 Superfortress, with an air-droppable EDO A-3 lifeboat rigged underneath

The A-3 lifeboat was an airborne lifeboat developed by the EDO Corporation in 1947 for the United States Air Force (USAF) as a successor to the A-1 lifeboat.[9] It was built of aluminum alloy to be carried by the SB-29 Super Dumbo. Various B-29s served air-sea rescue duties on a rotating basis toward the end of the Pacific War, and after the war 16 were converted to carry the A-3 lifeboat.[9] The SB-29 served until the mid-1950s.[9] Approximately 100 of the EDO lifeboats were built but very few rescues were attributed to them.

Douglas Aircraft Radio Controlled Life Raft

The airborne life boats used by the USAF at the start of the 1950s had two major flaws; they required specially modified aircraft to drop them, and in heavy weather and high winds when dropped they could drift away from the exhausted survivors or be swamped and over turned. The USAF, "Air Sea Rescue Unit of the Air Material Command", was tasked with studying the problem and coming up with a solution. Their solution was an air dropped life boat which before it inflated in the water, looked like a torpedo and could be carried by almost any aircraft in service that had heavy wing pylons.[10] When the boat was dropped near the survivors, on impacting the water large inflatable tubes which were connected to the rescue torpedo inflated, resulting in a radio controlled self-propelled life raft. The pilot would then start the life raft engine by radio control and steer the life raft to the survivors. When the survivors had boarded the life raft one of the rescue aircraft circling above would continue to control and steer the life raft to a safe zone for pick up, or allow the survivors to take over control. The life raft contained its own autopilot, water, dehydrated food, a two way rescue radio and enough fuel for 300 miles of travel.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Morison, 2007, p. xxvi.
  2. ^ Time, August 6, 1945. "World Battlefronts: Battle of the Seas: The Lovely Dumbos", page 1 Archived November 4, 2012, at the Wayback Machine and page 2. Retrieved on September 6, 2009.
  3. ^ a b Strahan, 1998, p. 193.
  4. ^ Flight 1945
  5. ^ a b RAF Davidstow Moor. February 1943: The Airborne Lifeboat. Retrieved on September 11, 2009. Archived January 16, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Ship Mark II Airborne Lifeboat British (MAR 566)
  7. ^ Flight, February 13, 1953. "Service Aviation: New Airborne Lifeboat." Retrieved on September 21, 2009. Archived October 21, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Strahan, 1998, pp. 208–209.
  9. ^ a b c National Museum of the US Air Force. Fact Sheets. Boeing SB-29 Retrieved on September 6, 2009. Archived October 9, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "Cover Illustration Showing Air Drop
  11. ^ "Radio Pilots Self Inflating Rescue Boat" "Popular Mechanics, September 1951, pp. 100–101
  • Hardwick, Jack; Ed Schnepf. The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2. Challenge Publications, 1989.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: The struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942 – February 1943. University of Illinois Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-252-06996-3
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Naval Institute Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59114-524-0
  • Strahan, Jerry E. Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats That Won World War II. LSU Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0-8071-2339-3

External links

A-1 lifeboat

The A-1 lifeboat was a powered lifeboat that was made to be dropped by fixed-wing aircraft into water to aid in air-sea rescue operations. The sturdy airborne lifeboat was to be carried by a heavy bomber specially modified to handle the external load of the lifeboat. The A-1 lifeboat was intended to be dropped by parachute during Dumbo missions to land within reach of the survivors of an accident on the ocean, specifically airmen survivors of an emergency water landing.

A-3 lifeboat

The A-3 lifeboat was an airborne lifeboat developed by the EDO Corporation in 1947 for the United States Air Force (USAF) as a successor to the Higgins Industries A-1 lifeboat. The A-3 lifeboat was a key element of "Dumbo" rescue flights of the 1950s.


The AN/APQ-13 radar was an American ground scanning radar developed by Bell Laboratories, Western Electric, and MIT as an improved model of the airborne H2X radar, itself developed from the first ground scanning radar, the British H2S radar. It was used on B-29s during World War II in the Pacific theater for high altitude area bombing, search and navigation. Computation for bombing could be performed by an impact predictor. A range unit permitted a high degree of accuracy in locating beacons. The radome was carried on the aircraft belly between the bomb bays and was partially retractable on early models. The radar operated at a frequency of 9375 ± 45 megahertz and used a superheterodyne receiver.

Air-sea rescue

Air-sea rescue (ASR or A/SR, also known as sea-air rescue) is the coordinated search and rescue (SAR) of the survivors of emergency water landings as well as people who have survived the loss of their seagoing vessel. ASR can involve a wide variety of resources including seaplanes, helicopters, submarines, rescue boats and ships. Specialized equipment and techniques have been developed. Military and civilian units can perform air-sea rescue.

Air-sea rescue operations carried out during war have saved valuable trained and experienced airmen. Moreover, the knowledge that such operations are being carried out greatly enhanced the morale of the combat aircrew faced not only with the expected hostile reaction of the enemy but with the possible danger of aircraft malfunction during long overwater flights.

Classic Boat Museum

The Classic Boat Museum is a museum of boats and of the history of yachting and boating. It is located on the Isle of Wight at two separate sites on either side of the River Medina; The Boat Collection in Cowes, and The Gallery in East Cowes. It is a working museum featuring restoration. Work takes place all year round. In addition to classic boats, the museum contains tools, artefacts, books, photographs, film and archival items that relate to the history of boat building, sailing, yachting, cruising and racing over the last century.

David Ernest Hornell

David Ernest Hornell VC (26 January 1910 – 24 June 1944) was a Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

Dumbo (air-sea rescue)

Dumbo was the code name used by the United States Navy during the 1940s and 1950s to signify search and rescue missions, conducted in conjunction with military operations, by long-range aircraft flying over the ocean. The purpose of Dumbo missions was to rescue downed American aviators as well as seamen in distress. Dumbo aircraft were originally land-based heavy bomber aircraft converted to carry an airborne lifeboat to be dropped in the water near survivors. The name "Dumbo" came from Walt Disney's flying elephant, the main character of the animated film Dumbo, appearing in October 1941.By extension, "Dumbo" became the unofficial nickname for any air-sea rescue aircraft, including flying boats that had less need to drop heavy lifeboats since the aircraft could land on the water and perform rescues directly. "Dumbo" was also an unofficial nickname for any variant of the PBY Catalina patrol bomber which operated in a wide variety of roles including anti-submarine warfare against German U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic.After the 1950s with development and greatly increased use of helicopters for air-sea rescue operations, the Dumbo aircraft were retired and the term was no longer used.

Higgins Industries

Higgins Industries was the company owned by Andrew Higgins based in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. Higgins Industries is most famous for the design and production of the Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft referred to as LCVP (landing craft, vehicles, personnel), which was used extensively in the Allied forces' D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Higgins also manufactured PT boats, and produced the first American airborne lifeboat, the model A-1 lifeboat. The company also had a subsidiary architectural firm that designed manufacturing buildings - most famously the Michoud Assembly Facility.

Andrew Higgins also owned the New Orleans-based Higgins Lumber and Export Co., and Higgins Aircraft, which contracted to provide aircraft for the US military during World War II.

Lifeboat (rescue)

A rescue lifeboat is a boat rescue craft which is used to attend a vessel in distress, or its survivors, to rescue crew and passengers. It can be hand pulled, sail powered or powered by an engine. Lifeboats may be rigid, inflatable or rigid-inflatable combination hulled vessels.

Lifeboat (shipboard)

A lifeboat or life raft is a small, rigid or inflatable boat carried for emergency evacuation in the event of a disaster aboard a ship. Lifeboat drills are required by law on larger commercial ships. Rafts (liferafts) are also used. In the military, a lifeboat may double as a whaleboat, dinghy, or gig. The ship's tenders of cruise ships often double as lifeboats. Recreational sailors usually carry inflatable life rafts, though a few prefer small proactive lifeboats that are harder to sink and can be sailed to safety.

Inflatable lifeboats may be equipped with auto-inflation (carbon dioxide or nitrogen) canisters or mechanical pumps. A quick release and pressure release mechanism is fitted on ships so that the canister or pump automatically inflates the lifeboat, and the lifeboat breaks free of the sinking vessel. Commercial aircraft are also required to carry auto-inflating life rafts in case of an emergency water landing; offshore oil platforms also have liferafts.

Ship-launched lifeboats are lowered from davits on a ship's deck, and are hard to sink in normal circumstances. The cover serves as protection from sun, wind and rain, can be used to collect rainwater, and is normally made of a reflective or fluorescent material that is highly visible. Lifeboats have oars, flares and mirrors for signaling, first aid supplies, and food and water for several days. Some lifeboats are more capably equipped to permit self-rescue, with supplies such as a radio, an engine and sail, heater, navigational equipment, solar water stills, rainwater catchments and fishing equipment.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Life-Saving Appliance Code (LSA) requires certain emergency equipment be carried on each lifeboat and liferaft used on international voyages. Modern lifeboats carry an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and either a radar reflector or Search and Rescue Transponder (SART).

Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre

The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is an aviation museum in East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, England. It was opened to the public in 1988 by Lincolnshire farmers Fred and Harold Panton, as a memorial to their older brother, Christopher Whitton Panton, who died during the Second World War.

No. 228 Squadron RAF

No. 228 Squadron RAF was a unit that during the greatest part of its existence flew over water, doing so in World War I, World War II and beyond, performing anti-submarine, reconnaissance and air-sea rescue tasks.

Phil Irving

Philip Edward Irving MBE, CEng., FIMechE., MSAE., (1903–1992) was an Australian engineer and author, most famous for the Repco-Brabham Formula One and Vincent motorcycle engines. He also worked at Velocette motorcycles, twice, and drew the engine of the 1960 EMC 125cc racer.


Saunders-Roe Limited, also known as Saro, was a British aero- and marine-engineering company based at Columbine Works, East Cowes, Isle of Wight.

Uffa Fox

Uffa Fox, CBE (15 January 1898 – 26 October 1972) was an English boat designer and sailing enthusiast.

United States military ration

The United States military ration refers to various preparations and packages of food provided to feed members of the armed forces. U.S. military rations are often made for quick distribution, preparation, and eating in the field and tend to have long storage times in adverse conditions due to being thickly packaged and/or shelf-stable. The current ration is the Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE).

Vickers Warwick

The Vickers Warwick was a multi-purpose twin-engined British aircraft developed and operated during the Second World War. In line with the naming convention followed by other RAF heavy bombers of the era, it was named after a British city or town, in this case Warwick. The Warwick was the largest British twin-engined aircraft to see use during the Second World War.The Warwick was designed and manufactured by Vickers-Armstrongs during the late 1930s. It was intended to serve as a larger counterpart to the Vickers Wellington bomber. The two aircraft share similar construction and design principles but unlike the smaller Wellington bomber, development of the Warwick was delayed by a lack of suitable high-powered engines. The maiden flight occurred on 13 August 1939 but delays to its intended powerplant, the Napier Sabre engine, led to alternatives being explored in the form of the Bristol Centaurus and Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engines. By the time adequate engines were available, rapid advances in the field of aviation had undermined the potency of the design in the face of Luftwaffe fighters.The Warwick entered quantity production during 1942 and squadron service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) shortly thereafter, it had been superseded as a bomber and barely a dozen aircraft were built as bombers. The type was used by the RAF in RAF Transport Command and by RAF Coastal Command as an air-sea rescue and maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The Warwick was also adopted by the Polish Air Forces in exile in Great Britain and the South African Air Force. A civil operator, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), also operated a handful of Warwicks.

Vincent lifeboat engine

The Vincent lifeboat engine was a unique design of two-stroke petrol engine. It was developed during World War II as a highly efficient engine for airborne lifeboats, providing a long range from little fuel.


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